Eulogy for Naomi Friedman Rabkin z”l
By Charlene Seidle, Executive Vice President
I call Naomi our Leichtag Miracle. She was introduced to me by another tenacious woman, Lori Bolotin, of blessed memory. I met with Naomi as a favor to Lori at Peet’s on a weekend the family was here visiting from Atlanta getting ready for their move, somewhere around the end of 2011 or very beginning of 2012. Naomi showed up, almond kale smoothie in hand (no frapaccino for Naomi), and I had all kinds of stereotypes in my mind right away. Then Naomi handed me her resume and started talking, and that was the first time of many that Naomi surprised me. She was far from a one size fits all health nut hippie wannabe. Instead she was talking about the CSA she ran as a volunteer in Atlanta, her passion for Judaism and food, her experience chairing the national Hazon food conference, the Sukkot festival she had organized at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, her Jewish community organizing as Executive Director of Limmud Atlanta and on and on.
Now let me take a step back. Many of you may know that the Leichtag Foundation owns a 67.5 acre agricultural property, Leichtag Commons. Today, the Commons is described in terms evoking beauty, Jewish innovation, community. But it wasn’t always like that. In fact, at the time Naomi and I met, before the Foundation had even put an offer on the property, it was a confusing and overgrown maze of plants, aging farm equipment, safety hazards, dilapidated greenhouses and more. And let’s not forget the administrative building that had to be torn down because of the mold and rodent issues. The difference between now and then? Well, Naomi. Naomi came with the perfect set of diverse experience and talents. She took a few initial ideas that were half baked at best about Jewish community life, service learning, and food justice and brought them into reality. With a style and flair that only Naomi could pull off. She had a prescience about Jewish community trends and, with deep empathy, she put herself in the mindset of the Jewish consumer of programs. She added her own ideas (rarely taking any of the credit) and made those happen as well. Not often do you find such an ability to conceive and execute, but Naomi could do both. She could lead a strategic planning process but was also not afraid to get her hands dirty, whether it was planting a tree, hand mixing for two temperamental Israeli chefs, picking out every drawer knob and light fixture for the Farm House or troubleshooting at an event. The vibrant center of community that is now known as Leichtag Commons was truly conceived, developed, designed and created by Naomi.
In reflecting about Naomi, we recalled an exercise that our team did about two years ago called Strengths Finder. Basically the construct is that you answer hundreds of questions (it takes about an hour and a half to complete the questionnaire) and then, from those answers, you identify your top four strengths and workshop those as a team. I pulled Naomi’s top four to use as a framework for these reflections. They are so on point as the drivers of her professional achievements and excellence, and I remember her being so amused by and interested in them.
Naomi’s top strength was that of “Activator”. For the activator, “when can we start” is a recurring question. Activators believe that action is the best device for learning. So for example. Instead of studying the pros and cons of holding a big community event just a few months after the purchase of the property, Naomi dived in and produced what is now the biggest Sukkot festival in North America “Sukkot at the Ranch”. She donned her denim dress and boots (ever the fashionista) and welcomed 1000 people to a venue that still lacked certain basic infrastructure. She paid attention to every detail because she knew that detail matters when you’re creating an environment practicing radical hospitality. In fact, one reason Naomi was so passionate about Sukkot in particular is because it’s the holiday that exemplifies hospitality, openness and of course joy. That year, and for the last four years, guided by Naomi’s passion for reaching out to lots of different people, Sukkot at Leichtag Commons has welcomed Jews practicing all kinds of observance, from strictly Orthodox to never having set foot in a synagogue. And also people who aren’t Jewish, some of whom are journeying through life with Jews. People who have a variety of experiences in Jewish spaces, and not always positive ones, as well as people without any experience. And most if not all leave wanting to come back. Ever the activator, Naomi knew that only action makes things real, only action leads to performance. And she learned from these actions and many others to iterate, improve, and act again building and building, better and better, one Sukkot after the next.
Here’s another example shared by our former colleague Josh Sherman who worked very closely with Naomi for several years and who she adored. As Director of Programs, Naomi was in charge of bringing the most creative and engaging Jewish programming to North County. When she learned that it was possible to bring her TV crush, Rachel Bloom of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” for a night of singing and performance, she was overwhelmed with excitement. The show, if you haven’t seen it, is about a young Jewish lawyer living in New York City who has a minor breakdown when she sees an ex boyfriend from theater camp and becomes comically obsessive about getting back together. And the hook of the show is that when the characters feelings become too much for words, they break into song. Everything was set for a July performance in Encinitas. With 24 hours to go, the marquis lights up and La Paloma Theatre’s 300 seats sold out, the team learned Rachel had to cancel the performance due to health issues. And worse, due to Rachel’s TV schedule, there wouldn’t be a reschedule date on the horizon. While most may have given up, Naomi instead fell into the character of Crazy Ex Girlfriend, becoming comically obsessed with getting Rachel to return to Encinitas, and yes, occasionally breaking into song herself. She showed her team how not to take no for an answer and how infectious excitement can be a great tool for a leader. And indeed Rachel did return some months later — with Naomi in the front row.
Naomi also activated her family, and we are always so happy to welcome Michael, Talia and Joey at just about every event and program we’ve had at Leichtag Commons. She activated Talia and Joey to volunteer at most of those programs (whether they wanted to or not), and they have sprinkled seeds, planted trees, helped lug around parcels and cared for children. Whenever Talia and Joey visit with Camp Simcha, the Farm team loves it because they know the farm through and through and they’re like farm counselors.
Naomi’s second strength was “woo” and oh how she loved to say that: WOO! Woo stands for “winning others over”. Now who among us did not experience Naomi’s woo. Naomi had this energetic charm and this magnetism that drew people to her. Not only did that make her totally fun to be around, it drove her professionally in powerful ways. Naomi could walk into a room where an event was taking place and instantly focus on those around the edges who didn’t quite feel included. Recall the demographic I spoke about before, and the people Leichtag is trying to reach. When we did focus groups, many shared how alienated they had felt in other Jewish community situations. Little did the North County Jewish community know. All they needed was the woo, and boy did Naomi bring it. She used her woo so strategically and naturally to treat all kinds of people with kindness, compassion and a genuine interest in what makes them tick.
Our President Jim Farley always says that when Naomi came into one of the many national and international convenings that we host at Leichtag Commons or when she was even mentioned, it was like a rock star had entered the room. Naomi nurtured so many colleagues and friends as part of her network which extended far and wide, from Encinitas to Jerusalem, back again and beyond. And each of these connections, she strategically applied to advance the Foundation and her professional goals. That’s Naomi’s woo at work.
Her third strength is “Individualization”. The individualist is intrigued by the unique qualities of each person. Naomi was truly a talent spotter. She enjoyed identifying other people’s strengths and drawing out the best in them. When we asked our Jewish Food Justice Fellow alumni to share thoughts about Naomi, every single one of them referenced the first phone call they had with her, when they were considering the Fellowship, and how she zeroed in on just the right quality or goal in their application and explained how they could enhance that quality or advance that goal in Encinitas. Every single fellow separately credited that conversation with Naomi as being the key factor in their decision to move here and help us build community.
Naomi was an extraordinary manager. The team she managed is passionately devoted to her. She was promoted repeatedly and moved from being a one-person department to assuming a senior leadership position at Leichtag supervising four different departments and integrating different teams together. She was an absolute champion of those she managed, pushy when she needed to be, totally focused on bringing out the best of their talents. She often reflected that when the people you manage succeed, it’s the best reflection on you. She encouraged (sometimes strongly) her team members into the spotlight and rarely took credit for herself. Her team shared that ninety percent of the time when they asked her what they should do, she turned the question back on them, asking “What do you think you should do”. Now, if you know Naomi, you know she was never short on answers. But instead she saw these daily dilemmas as important growth experiences for them to come to solutions independently. There are a lot of stories about Naomi’s fierce loyalty to her team. I’ll share one that took place about 10 days ago when I went to visit Naomi in the hospital. Naomi was single minded during that visit: she wanted to be sure that Jenny Camhi, our Senior Manager of North County Jewish Life who Naomi mentored and admired and adored, would accelerate her advancement in our organization. Even from her hospital bed, Naomi championed Jenny single mindedly on how to help Jenny develop professionally. She was ever the mentor, ever the true friend. And in her championship, she set the table for the future of the Leichtag Foundation.
She brought care and kindness to our office environment and heard the “one of a kind” stories in each person’s life. She would leave little gifts for people and realize exactly what they needed in the moment. Knowing I am often cold, she left a warm pashmina for me to use when the office got chilly. Others found treats from Beaming or wellness shots on their desks. Today, Nora from the farm team is wearing her beautiful tree earrings which she received from Naomi just this last Tu B’shvat.
Fourth, Naomi was an “arranger”. The arranger is a conductor who enjoys managing all the variables, aligning and realigning them until you are sure you have arranged them in the most productive configuration possible. This was Naomi through and through. She was fond of saying that it’s important to make the rules and equally important to deviate from them. She was always thinking, always devising, on how to make things better.
Often, Naomi’s attentiveness to both the details and the big picture meant that she had gotten to the best answer way ahead of us and had to wait for the rest of us to go through our own process of realization.
Take Ena, now a beloved member of the Hive coworking space community. Truthfully Ena almost got rejected because she went slightly over budget. You see Ena is actually one of those fancy coffee makers from Switzerland. At the time, Ena seemed way too pricey, but Naomi knew how important good coffee is to getting almost anything done and she advocated for Ena vehemently. Well, as anyone who works in the Hive or has ever been to a meeting in the Hive knows, Ena has become the lynchpin in gathering professionals together for creative interaction, some of the best dollars we’ve ever spent.
And just the name Hive. Naomi first proposed that name a few years ago, and Jenny and I both pushed back. Instead, we called the space the “North County Jewish Hub”; can you imagine a less creative name? Well, after lots of activities and a rebrand, we recently renamed the space you guessed it…the Hive. Naomi was right again!
Naomi and Michael worked as a team to resolve another source of longstanding disagreement when we tried to come up with a name for the farm being established at Leichtag Commons. At probably the eleventh meeting we had held on the subject without resolution, instead of joining in the grumbling, Naomi unveiled a totally new name: Coastal Roots Farm with an initial logo to match. I think she and Michael had designed it on a plane coming back from vacation in Portland. And Naomi had done it again — found the perfect solution and brought the rest of us along. These days, we can’t imagine the farm by any other name!
So what are we going to do now, without Naomi, without our Leichtag Miracle? It is extraordinarily difficult to contemplate Leichtag Commons without her. I so wish we didn’t have to. In the coming days and weeks and months, we will need to take all the talent that Naomi inspired and nurtured in each of us and work hard each and every day to live up to her example of creativity, vision and leadership. Michael, Joey, Talia, Marcia, Danny, Hannah, Barbara, Rabkin and Friedman families, you have a forever home at Leichtag Commons. We have been so blessed by your and our beloved Naomi; may we emulate her and draw strength from her profound impact.